TeachTalk - Ajay Parasram

In this TeachTalk interview, Ajay Parasram from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, reflects on helping students understand a complex and unstable world, beginning with discussions of territory and power that grow out of his own biography. He has been teaching activism classes that involve forging communities of learners through syllabus discussions, autonomous reading groups and street level mobilizations, especially around issues of indigenous souvereignty. Ajay's pedagogical practice relates especially to the whole-person learning and praxis strands of critical-creative pedagogy.


a map of former Mi'kmaq settlements in Eastern Canada
Former settlements of the 7 Mi'kmaq branches

What is your background and where, what and who do you teach?


I am a multi-generational transnational by-product of the British Empire. My ancestors came from different parts of India, they crossed what they called the kala pani in around the 1850s or 60s in the aftermath of slavery, where they were transported to about 19 different countries around the world. My people ended up in Trinidad as a form of involuntary scab laborers on the sugar plantations, which is kind of not-too-kind way of describing it. When you think about the economics of recently enslaved Africans withholding their labor to get better working conditions in the former slaving situation, it's hard not to see how we were thrusted into this acrimonious labor situation.


So I've been really interested as a Indo-Trinidadian in particular living in the diaspora, on the eastern side of Turtle Island, what we call in the colonial language Canada. I live in the city of K’jipuktuk, which means the Great Harbor, which was one of the biggest harbors in the British Empire historically, it's in the colonial city of Halifax in Canada. Before that I lived in Coast Salish territories on the west coast, I've studied most of my degrees are in Algonquin territories in the center of Canada, what we call Ottawa, the national capital.


I've started off trying to grapple with race and specifically understanding why non-white people fight each other vehemently instead of the forces of structural white supremacy. That's taken a number of different routes. My background is in political science, so I have three degrees in political science and the last one specializes in international relations, comparative politics and political economy. My doctoral work was very historical, looking at 19th century state formation in Sri Lanka and out of that I ended up landing a tenure track job in the department of history and the department of international development studies at Dalhousie University on the east coast.


This is a particularly important appointment for me because I did my undergrad here and I grew up in the city as well, so my political and intellectual commitments here have a really deep grounding, especially as I feel the history and I feel the way that I used to walk around in the city as a visible minority as a kid. I have a particular interest in being visible, public and loud in the communities here because I see the impact it has on the people whom I am reminded of my own experiences when I see and talk to them. So it's been an interesting experience coming back as a faculty member to a city I grew up in and that I had left without ever thinking I would come back.


I teach history and international development students and they're very different types of students. In international development we have generally social justice oriented interdisciplinary trained students who ostensibly want to make the world a better place. In history, it tends to be more small-c conservative oriented people who have a more static understanding of the past, as if it's a separate place and just describe it with rich thick description. Both very good scholars in their own rights but very differently grounded in terms of what the purpose of their studies are.


What does critical-creative teaching mean to you, and how does it relate to your own pedagogic practice?


Fundamentally whether I'm teaching in one discipline or the other, I try to emphasize transformation of the students. That’s at the core of all of the things we do, whether that's built into the syllabus or more secondary in terms of the kinds of conversations that we cultivate in the classroom. Often I'll have students do assignments that they're less experienced with. For example, I started teaching here in 2016 and back then it wasn't as common for students in history in particular to be thinking about the public outcome or significance of their work. So I would always have my students in their seminars write blog posts for public consumption, where the challenge for them was to offer a scholarly engagement with a series of difficult texts, but to write it in plain language, as a kind of public historical work. In development studies, it's taken lots of different forms, for example street level projects in courses on activism that force students to work together, whether they are organizing a rally or public demonstration, whether they're going out to a site of indigenous land defence or offering labor and resources.


But at the core, it's really all about helping the student to understand that the world that they've inherited is not as stable as they might think that it is, and a lot of that starts with land and territory, no matter where you are. It's very helpful in fact to be teaching on stolen and unceded territory, it makes for a kind of obvious entry point. So I often start my classes with lectures entitled ‘Where are you, how do you know and are you sure?’ We put up different kinds of maps, because maps represent power and different articulation of power, so you can layer maps on top of each other and show the privileging of colonial territory at the core of colonial ontology. Helping students understand those differences allows them glimpses into other ways of thinking, even if they can't necessarily become experts and I certainly don't purport to be an expert in all these different aspects, but recognizing the difference and that the differences are real can help students transform their own approach to learning.


How are your students learning from your particular way of teaching, for example about activism?


As a person who teaches activism yourself, you know how challenging it is. I always say that to teach a course on activism is as much work as teaching two courses to do it well, because it forces students fundamentally out of their comfort zone. The way that we teach it it's not about learning about activism in the abstract, the way that we might learn about quantum theory or something like that. I guess I should have said this at the beginning that aside from academia, I come to a lot of the work that I do through experience working within social movements, so I've learned a lot through social movement that I try to integrate into the classroom.


One example of that is autonomous reading groups, they are really important in my activism class. The intellectual work of activism and social movements and archiving that work is very important to me and many of my colleagues who are more squarely in the activist camp. So I have students come together and they come up with a criteria to evaluate one another, just to keep themselves on track. But it's otherwise autonomous; I just float around the room, and I might participate if I feel like it. The objective is to model this idea that we're in an egalitarian group of learners as much as possible. At the end of the day, I do have to give them a grade, which is something we have always grappled with in the university. But you set up the class in such a way that when the student demonstrates that they've committed to doing the work and they can show that they've done the work, pretty much everybody can be guaranteed a grade that reflects what they put into it and I've never had too many students complain about it.


Another aspect is conflict resolution, so addressing things democratically in the classroom. This is oftentimes frustrating for students, because a lot of them like to treat the course syllabus as a sort of the 10 commandments of the class. But what I do is, we have pretty frank conversations about how the classes are going every couple of weeks and I'm open to changing my syllabus and changing it based on a popular consensus, or at least I don't change it unless there's consensus in the classroom because otherwise it seems unfair. So everybody has the ability to block it, but it's fundamentally an exercise in democratic process because we have to negotiate.


So we will oftentimes use different strategies. Stop, Start, Continue is a great activity. I give out a piece of paper to everybody in the class and ask them to write something that we do that inhibits your learning, that you don't like so that's the STOP; something that you think we should be doing that would benefit you and others, that's a START; and then CONTINUE what's one thing that you just don't want us to stop, no matter what that is, because it’s really working for you in class. So they all write it down anonymously, they drop it in my hat on their way out and then I compile it all, and I put it up into three panels or on the screen the next week. And what's useful about the exercise is that it shows the students that the things that they're passionate about are oftentimes at odds with what other people in the classroom want.


So somebody might say, I really hate the way that we go through these readings in such a meticulous way, but then four or five other people say it really helps me understand the readings when we do that. So it allows the students to have more access to the other learners in the classroom and to build a sense of empathy and camaraderie amongst themselves. The whole idea of grading basically instils this neoliberal ethic of success and if we can chisel that away and say ‘we are a community of learners and we have to care for one another, learn what works for others,’ it encourages a level of empathy in the classroom. They understand that and many people are willing to compromise, so we have a better quality conversation, which is why I think we can often arrive at consensus in those scenarios, certainly in the upper level classes.


Another fundamental part of the activism class is bringing activists into the classroom in a more traditional guest lecture sort of way. I oftentimes will bring in student activists in as well, alumni of the class that are out in the community doing wonderful things. But also we go to the sites as necessary. So there's a couple of different instances of really significant contestations over the meaning of sovereignty, colonial sovereignty and indigenous sovereignty happening in our immediate environment that most students and most citizens of the city are completely unaware and disinterested about, in part because they just don't understand because the media does such a terrible job of framing it.


So we will oftentimes go out as a class and participate in land defences. This has in the past taken the form of a traditional demonstration, where we would invite elders and invite community members and speakers who have lived experiences related to whatever the theme is for example water security. And then it’s been a little bit more radical in other years where we've decided to cancel our event and then all attend en masse a work party that water protectors had organized. And that has sometimes been heavily policed and heavily criticized by powerful people in various institutions, including my own. So inevitably some students don't want to come along for that and I don't penalize them for it. We are still a university doing a university class, so I think it's reasonable to make accommodations for students who won't come along. But what has impressed me each time we do this, is that many more students than I think are actually willing to engage in this type of learning.


I say that because our activism class is a sort of semi-required class. We have two different classes they can choose from where they get advanced level practice experience. One is very much the kind of traditional NGO training, where you do environmental scans and reports and statistics. The other is the activism course and was created by my colleague Bob Huish who recognized about 10 years ago that there was another practical element to doing international development work that doesn't get captured when we're overemphasizing the NGO model and this would be the street level stuff.